Places Discussed

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*Ellis Island

*Ellis Island. Official processing center in New York Harbor, where, like thousands of other immigrants in 1907, David Schearl and his mother Genya first set foot in America. They are met by Genya’s husband Albert, who has preceded them across the Atlantic and has been living in Brownsville and working as a printer. Albert accompanies his wife and son on a ferry from Ellis Island to the city, where they begin their lives together as a new American family. Genya’s first words, a remark about having arrived in “the Golden Land,” highlight the novel’s attention to its urban setting.

*Lower East Side

*Lower East Side. Congested section of Manhattan where European immigrants, particularly Jews, settled soon after arriving in the United States. David Schearl and his parents live on the fourth floor of a tenement house on 9th Street and Avenue D. The novel is largely restricted to the consciousness of a frightened, confused little boy who, except for an unfortunate excursion with his father on his milk route, rarely ventures beyond the turbulent streets immediately surrounding his building. In addition to the family apartment itself, significant events occur on the roof of the building. Roth’s Lower East Side is a vibrant, polyglot community, terrifying to a young newcomer but inspiring to an author. Roth later credited this urban setting for much of the stimulus to write Call It Sleep.


*Brownsville. Poor section of Brooklyn, New York, in which the Schearl family lives in a tenement on Bahrdee Street. Later, the family moves across the East River to Manhattan, where Albert Schearl finds work as a milkman. Though David’s young friend Yussie talks of having come to Brownsville from Brooklyn, Brownsville is in fact part of Brooklyn, which is in turn one of the five boroughs that constitute New York City. The cellar in the Brownsville building figures significantly in David’s heightened imagination.


Veljish. Town in Galicia, Austria, which is David’s mother Genya’s hometown. Although none of Call It Sleep itself is actually set there, Veljish, whose idyllic rural landscape contrasts sharply with urban New York, figures prominently in the wistful memories that David overhears Genya sharing with her sister Bertha in a Polish that he does not entirely understand.


Cheder. School for instruction in the Jewish religion, which is tyrannized over by Reb Yidel Pankower and which David is forced to attend. It is here, in a squalid schoolroom on the Lower East Side, that David reads Isaiah’s account of the angel with burning coal.

Candy store

Candy store. Owned by David’s Aunt Bertha and her husband Nathan. When David brings him to the store, on Kane Street on the Lower East Side, his Polish friend Leo makes sexual advances toward David’s cousin Esther.

*Metropolitan Museum of Art

*Metropolitan Museum of Art. Destination of a rare uptown Manhattan expedition by David and Aunt Bertha, a temple of high culture in which the two outsiders become hopelessly lost trying to find their way out.

Precinct police station

Precinct police station. Young David is brought here when, wandering too far beyond the family tenement in Brownsville, he becomes lost.


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Dembo, L. S. The Monological Jew: A Literary Study. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988. Argues that Roth uses an imagist technique of perceiving reality: David senses but never understands life.

Farber, Frances D. “Encounters with an Alien Culture: Thematic Functions of Dialect in Call It Sleep.” Yiddish 7 (1990): 49-56. Analyzes the way Roth masters the “cacophony” of street dialects of immigrants becoming acculturated...

(This entire section contains 204 words.)

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in early twentieth century New York City and how he uses speech to show “young David’s temptations and terrors.”

Guttmann, Allen. The Jewish Writer in America: Assimilation and the Crisis of Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Analyzes David’s agony as representative of the experience of first-generation Jews as they take their place in American culture. Also recognizes the novel’s universality.

Lyons, Bonnie. Henry Roth: The Man and His Work. New York: Cooper Square, 1976. In this extensive treatment of Roth, Lyons discusses Call It Sleep in the context of the author’s life and shows that it is a unified work of art.

Sherman, Bernard. The Invention of the Jew: Jewish-American Education Novels (1916-1964). New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1969. Treats the book as primarily a Depression novel but recognizes that central to it is the maturing of a young mind.




Critical Essays